GREAT BARRINGTON >> So why do so many politicians steal?
Clearly, they can make a lot of money within the legal parameters that they themselves have established, so it doesn't make sense that they would chance going to prison, some for the rest of their lives, by doing something criminal.
Most of us are scared to death of getting into trouble — from a wrong entry on our tax returns to not putting the garbage can lids on properly. When we witness one politician after another going on trial, we just shake our heads and wonder why they would risk it all. There are several theories that can help explain what's going on between their ears.
The first is probably the most basic. In a word, it's simple arrogance. These people think they are so important, they can't be held to account. When you are in charge of making the very rules you supposedly live by, it stands to reason that you think you are untouchable.
The one thing that has changed everything is the federal criminal justice bureaucracy. In New York, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has indicted a bunch of these characters. That was supposed to have put the fear of God into them, but apparently it has not.
We know this because the denizens of the legislative deep have refused to pass the kind of meaningful ethics reform that the public is demanding. They are like deer in the proverbial headlights. They are frozen.
They just haven't got the wherewithal to change things that might put a dent into their standard of living. Because they have thus far avoided getting caught, they figure they can continue to do what they've always done. Even as they see one after another of their legislative colleagues being led away in handcuffs, they still take the risks that they have always taken. So the sin of arrogance goes largely unabated.
Then there is need. If you and your family are living at a particular level, it is almost unthinkable to consider downsizing that standard. Consider what it costs to send a kid to college — maybe $60,000?
How much does a private nursery, elementary or secondary school cost? What if you have more than one kid? Can you imagine what cutting out the semi-criminal activity might actually cost? Just look at the testimony from Dean and Adam Skelos that put both in jail.
Another powerful reason that they won't improve the ethics situation is the fact that many of them are subject to greed. Some of these people just want more and more, even if they can adequately get by on what they have. We see it all the time in the "1 percent" who acquire so much wealth that they really can't use it in five lifetimes. Yet some people just can't turn off the spigot and say, "That's enough."
Some people do illegal things because they are stupid. One New York legislator, Malcolm Smith, tried to bribe his way onto a ballot and got caught. There was no way he would have won if the Democrat made it onto the Republican mayoral ballot but he did it anyway. That was just plain stupid. I'll never know what made him do it. He had to know someone in the system would tell on him.
Some legislators are scared. They are scared that their bosses, like the ones who are on their way to jail, will deprive them of goodies such as important committee chairmanships if they don't go along. Also, there is something called peer pressure and that means a lot.
I've known reformist type legislators who were made so unwelcome that they chose to resign rather than endure the dirty looks and scorn of their colleagues. So they get out as soon as they can. That's why some kids don't like summer camps.
Those are only a few reasons why some legislators steal.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.